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Educating Outside the Lines: ‘the Simon’s Rock Pedagogy Book’ by Nancy Yanoshak

Each month, the Newsroom publishes commentary by the leadership at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. This ongoing series, called Perspectives, is one way in which the College adds its voice to important conversations in higher education.

For the 2008-2009 year, Perspectives will address different aspects of the early college movement. All of these pieces draw from—and reflect on—the accumulated knowledge of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, founded in 1966 as the nation’s first early college. Since that time, interest in early college has blossomed. Hundreds of early college programs now exist—serving diverse needs through a variety of program structures in an array of settings. Within this vibrant landscape, Simon’s Rock remains not only the pioneering institution, but the nation’s only college of liberal arts and sciences expressly designed to educate students early. This is the unique, time-tested perspective that Simon’s Rock brings.

Educating Outside the Lines: ‘the Simon’s Rock Pedagogy Book’ 
Nancy Yanoshak

For the past eighteen months, I have acted as facilitator for a book about college teaching, written by Simon’s Rock faculty and alumni. This was one of the special projects I proposed as the college’s 2007-2009 Emily Fisher Faculty Fellow. It grew out of the realization that although most of our faculty (including myself!) had never written about pedagogy, we talk and think about it constantly. On campus and off, at meetings and in the dining hall, in our offices and on the phone over the weekends, faculty, staff, administrators, and students engage in conversations about what we teach, how we learn, and what we can do better. This project was born in an effort to gather some of these ideas, so that we could “tell the world” about what Simon’s Rock has taught us about education.

To begin the project, we held “brainstorming sessions,” at which faculty and administrators  exchanged ideas on what we might say. Then, in true Simon’s Rock fashion we “workshopped” the results. Last summer, seventeen of us participated in five day-long sessions (plus homework!), writing and thinking about “the book.” Following the practices enshrined in our Writing and Thinking Workshop for first year students, we did “focused free-writes” on the book’s potential contribution to higher education; got into small groups to provide constructive feedback on the rough drafts we’d written of our individual chapters; and came together in large group discussions to refine the themes around which the book would be organized. We talked to students and to alums to get their perspectives, did some reading about teaching, and tried out our ideas at  conferences in Hawaii and Texas that welcomed panels and interactive workshops focused on college pedagogy. This past semester we researched  revised, wrote, and talked some more, and are now at the point of submitting the book to a publisher.

As we conceive it now, the work will contribute to current thinking about effective college pedagogy. It analyzes our experiences at the “nation’s pioneer early college,” and we believe it contains much that could be useful to others who are part of a growing “early college movement,” i.e. to educators who are thinking about how to engage younger students in challenging college level work. We do not, however, see the collection simply as being about what it is like to be part of a “teaching intensive” place, and to work with an unusual student population. Although it is certainly that, we hope it has value (in conceptual as well as practical terms) for anyone interested in improving the quality of higher education in the United States today. We think this might be the case, ironically, because of what sets us apart from the other academic institutions to which we might be compared.

These days the term “early college” is associated most often with early college high schools, which blend the last two years of high school and the first two years of college, and lead to the A.A. degree. The teaching practices of Simon’s Rock have inspired many of these hybrids, notably the highly successful Bard High School Early College in New York City, yet we differ from them in that Simon’s Rock is a four year college program leading to a B.A. At the same time, we differ from other selective liberal arts colleges in that our students handle a challenging curriculum without having completed the last two years of high school, and may earn their baccalaureate here before they are twenty. With roughly 450 students and 150 faculty, staff and administrators, Simon’s Rock is also smaller than almost any other institution of higher education, and most secondary schools as well. These factors, coupled with our roots the traditions of educational progressivism have created an intimate, egalitarian academic community where collaborations across the boundaries of age, status, and field are the norm.

Thus Simon’s Rock stands both inside and outside of the mainstream of American higher education, and differs significantly even from participants in the early college movement which it has helped to create. In the book, we explore what this unique vantage point has taught us about effective teaching and consequential learning.

The book will have well over thirty authors. Eighteen faculty are writing fifteen core chapters, and each of these will have a “discussant”—an alumnus who will write a brief  commentary on the piece in question. All of the contributors are currently associated with Simon’s Rock, or have been in the past, as faculty, students, and administrators. Some have experienced several of these roles—i.e. they are graduates who have come back to teach, and others are teachers who have become administrators. They represent all four of the academic divisions of the college (Arts and Aesthetics; Languages and Literatures; Mathematics, Science, and Computing; and Social Studies), and virtually all of the “generations” of faculty and students who have been part of the institution from its beginnings in the late sixties to the present.

Whatever our place within the forty year history of Simon’s Rock, the pieces we have written reflect our shared commitment to an academic experience that respects but is not limited by the categories that overtly or covertly have organized higher education, whether they be social, intellectual, or institutional. In other words, our work here has led us to reconsider, sometimes by design and sometimes by necessity, the boundaries between novice and expert; between (and within) the sciences and the humanities, as formal divisions of a curriculum, and as modes of cognition; between classroom, campus and the world beyond; and between childhood and adulthood. Hence our working title: Educating Outside the Lines: Bard College at Simon’s Rock on ‘the New Pedagogy for the Twentieth Century.’ We have been inspired, provoked, enlightened, and delighted by the ways theses “lines” can be redrawn and reinvented. It is my hope that, in addition to opening productive dialogues with others interested in good teaching and good learning, our book will convey that sense of delight and wonder about being part of Simon’ Rock that I share with my colleagues and fellow authors.